The Number of the Beast, Robert A. Heinlein

Fawcett, 1980, 511 pages, C$4.75 mmpb, ISBN 0-449-14476-3

Given this new millennium, some particularly silly person will undoubtedly try to poll Science-Fiction fans to try to find out was the foremost SF writer of the twentieth century. I say “silly”, because the contest is over even before it begins; the honour logically goes to Robert A. Heinlein.

Say what you want, gnash your teeth, moan loudly or run away screaming; Robert A. Heinlein is the defining SF writer of the twentieth century. He has shaped the genre to his liking, inspired more writers than anyone else, provoked more arguments and debates than any other and influenced more people than most politicians. He’s not only the author of the hippie manifesto Stranger in a Strange Land, but also the militarist fantasy Starship Troopers and the libertarian classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Notice, however, that these novels were all written in the first two-third of Heinlein’s career. In the seventies, the author was severely affected by poor health and his post-1970 novels were marked by a severe lack of editorial revision, increasing authorial indulgence and a detestable tendency to praise a small group of fictional characters very much like Heinlein at the expense of everything else.

The Number of the Beast is widely known as one of Heinlein’s worst books and an interminable exercise in solipsism. Given that it’s one of the very few Heinlein novels I still hadn’t read, I was curious to see for myself what the fuss was about.

After reading the novel, I’m still unsure whether the book was a satire or not. A straight plot summary of the book will not do: what would any serious SF reader think of “two couples of geniuses are chased by aliens and forced to depart through space and time aboard their specially-modified car”? Right…

It’s apparent from the start that this is a novel that will defy conventional assessment. When hitherto-unknown characters marry in the first thirty pages, when all four protagonists have multiple doctorates and when alternate universes are defined by SF stories, it quickly becomes apparent that anyone applying rational literary standards will quickly regret it.

Which is essentially saying that anyone expecting a conventionally entertaining novel won’t like The Number of the Beast. Critics are right when they say that the four protagonists in The Number of the Beast are all Heinlein in disguise. It’s not enough to be ready to wackiness; it’s almost a prerequisite to be very familiar with all of Heinlein’s corpus up to 1980 to be comfortable with the discussions in this novel.

But is it enjoyable? It depends which part of the novel you read. The opening 150 pages have some plot, and are carried through mainly on Heinlein’s sheer narrative verve and great character introductions. The protagonists are so ridiculously ultra-competent that we’re reading in part to see which one will top the other with some other outrageously exotic skill.

But the 350 remaining pages are, despite the lively prose, often an exercise in tediousness. Interminable, useless technical descriptions are wrapped around some more (not unenjoyable) Heinleinisms. The impression is one of a writer who’s lost his outline. Even the spirited Envoi does nothing to reconcile ourselves with a novel that’s two-third empty.

That’s the conventional way of enjoying The Number of the Beast… but I’m not sure the unconventional way is open to anyone save the late Robert A. Heinlein himself.

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